Winter in Wartime (2011) Review

In recent history, the rigors of war have been an all too vivid reality for people the world over. As such, there has been no shortage of war movies. Winter in Wartime pulls audiences back into the fray, fighting against the world’s universal antagonists: the Nazis. Thankfully, rather than having a political bent, the film presents a more intimate tale about the loss and rekindling of childhood, leaving audiences with a hopeful message to take back with them into the real world where the outcome of ongoing wars are still uncertain.

In the winter of 1945 a small Dutch village is occupied by the Nazi military. One night a British aircraft crashes in flames in a nearby field and the wreckage has the occupying army on high alert as they suspect a survivor may have killed a Nazi soldier and is hiding close by. Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) is a 13-year-old boy living in the village and is the son of the mayor (Raymond Thiry).  Michiel longs for adventure and yearns to join the town rebels who engage in guerilla tactics against the Nazis, but is forbade from doing so by his protective father. By chance, Michiel learns of a survivor of the plane crash – Jack (Jamie Campbell Bower), a British soldier – and quickly discovers that he alone is Jack’s protector. As Jack’s wounds become grievous and his peril unmanageable, Michiel is left no choice but to involve his sister (Melody Klaver) and his uncle Ben (Yorick van Wageningen) to try to get Jack to safety at the nearest city. Along the way, Michiel must make adult decisions that may cost him his innocence.

Winter in Wartime is based on the award-winning semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Dutch author Jan Terlouw. However, the large details aren’t what make this film work; the Nazis could have easily been replaced by any oppressive totalitarian force and the year could have been set in the future. It’s Michiel’s personal story that will resonate most with audiences. As a youth living in such conditions, going on the journey with Michiel as he sacrifices his innocence at the altar of hard choices is both thrilling and heartbreaking at the same time and will give viewers pause to reflect on their own lives.

None of this is to say that Nazis and World War II don’t add to the film. On the contrary, those elements are wise choices, because there is no equivocation on whether or not hating Nazis is justified or if they have a legitimate argument for their actions. Winter in Wartime does a fine job in painting the Nazis in the proper light. In a wise move, the filmmakers save the more oppressive military actions, like firing squads and rounding up of people in the middle of the night, for later in the film. It’s a nice touch because when Michiel finds himself in trouble with the military early on, audiences won’t realize just how much trouble it was until the brutality rears its head.

The entire cast does a great job at making all of their relationships with each other feel believable. So much so that when relationships start to evolve in sometimes unexpected ways, viewers will sympathize with Michiel’s confusion and resentment. Thankfully, Martijn Lakemeier is a strong actor despite being so young and he’s able to carry the film without any concessions.

Additional praise should also be heaped on the production designer Floris Vos and composer Maurizio Abeni. Winter in Wartime looks beautiful and authentic and the music is moving, without being overtly manipulative. The vibrant red banners of the Nazi army hanging against the dreary, snow-covered backdrop of the Dutch town succinctly symbolize how alien the Nazis’ presence is.  And the sometimes sweeping soundtrack perfectly complements the visuals, especially during a dramatic scene with Michiel trying to stop a firing squad from killing a loved one.

With many parts of the world experiencing war-fatigue – especially America – it’s refreshing to watch a movie set during a war without necessarily focusing on war. Furthermore, audiences will appreciate the ultimate message of Winter in Wartime, which is that spirit can be broken, but it can also be restored. It all depends on the individual’s strength of character and the eternal spring of hope.